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Stop and Hear the Poetry: Spoken Words Beckon to Bustling New York City

February 24, 2017

The Guardian

August 14, 2015

by Joanna Scutts

If you haven’t heard of the now-extinct platypus frog, Jenny Johnson is prepared explain why she had to put it in a poem. “The female had the ability to transform her stomach into a womb. Then she would swallow her own eggs and after several weeks, birth fully formed froglets out of her mouth. It’s amazing!”

Dressed in a short-sleeved green shirt and tie, Johnson was one of four readers at Bryant Park’s Tuesday night Word for Word poetry series. She was joined by Anthony Carelli, Aracelis Girmay and Roger Reeves, her fellow recipients of this year’s Whiting Foundation awards, which gives a valuable $50,000 prize to 10 early-career writers of poetry, fiction and nonfiction.

Bustling Bryant Park has become New York’s summertime rec room, with areas devoted to board games, table tennis, juggling and boules. The Reading Room offers carts of books and magazines for browsing. It’s a revival of the Open Air Library that debuted in 1935, a Depression-era extension of the neighboring public library, which allowed the unemployed to pass their time reading outside.

To pull in more of the crowd, the Room tries to be eclectic in its choices of readers. “Tomorrow, we’re going to have Al Roker!” the host informed the crowd. “Who knew he was a writer?”

The weather is as unpredictable as the crowd, especially on a midsummer weekday evening under a stormy grey-yellow sky. Passersby, not wanting to appear too curious, practice the distinctive New York art of twisting to listen without slowing their stride. A woman walks by in a white shirt and red-rimmed glasses, carrying a single pink peony nodding like a balloon on a long stem. A cellphone bleats over the beginning of a poem. But the small crowd that’s gathered here on purpose is eager and enthusiastic. When Carelli pauses after two poems to ask “Everybody doing all right?” they burst out clapping. He protests that he wasn’t looking for applause.

Carelli, author of the collection Carnationsdescribes all four of the poems he reads as unconventional love poems, to friends, cities and other poets, as well as lovers. Their tones shift from “as dark as the sky appears tonight”, to casual and funny, and they’re marked with the beats and noise of the city, like the idling city bus and games in the park. Charlie at Full Speed takes place in an urban park “that looks quite a bit different from this one”, Carelli explains, big enough for a game of bocce and for a greyhound to bolt off his leash.

In Aracelis Girmay’s 2011 collection Kingdom Animaliaeverything from natural phenomena to human inventions is in some way animalistic and accordingly possesses (as the book’s description puts it), “a system of desire, hunger, a set of teeth and language”. Yet there are less abstract subjects here too. Her first reading is drawn from a cycle of elegiac poems honoring the estimated 20,000 people “who have died at sea making the journey from North Africa to Europe in the past two decades”. A poem about a visit to her elderly grandfather is a more personal reflection on migration, tracing the poet’s distance from her Eritrean, Puerto Rican and African American roots. When Girmay arrives at a line about her “return to the traffic of the streets I know”, Fifth Avenue obliges with a cascade of horns and sirens.

“Science is wonderful,” announces Roger Reeves, author of the collection King Me, telling the audience that he’s been a father for just four weeks. But there’s no trace of new-parent exhaustion in his reading of a visceral poem inspired by his new daughter and Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved – nor in the selections from a larger sequence of poems written in voices emanating from the body of a lynching victim, which moves through time and space between Gaza, Nigeria and Ferguson. His hypnotic performance is a reminder of the power of poetry to transform experience into language that reverberates. If only more of us could take a moment to stop and listen.